Tuesday, September 8, 2009

1993 Hawaiian Winter League Cards

In 1993, a new winter baseball league started in Hawaii. One of the unique things about this league called the Hawaiian Winter League was that it not only had prospects from Major League Baseball playing in it, it also had prospects from both Japan and Korea. In fact, the very first year, one of its teams, the Hilo Stars, won the pennant with a roster containing a bunch of players from the Orix Blue Wave, including Ichiro Suzuki and So Taguchi. The league lasted five seasons, folding after the 1997 season due to a lack of support from Major League Baseball. The league was revived in 2006 and lasted another three seasons, folding following last year (2008) due once again to a lack of support from Major League Baseball.

I've mentioned this league before when I had a post about Japanese players appearing in North American minor league baseball card sets. During much of the 1990's, I was a big time minor league baseball card collector and I always tried to get cards of winter league teams because they were so odd. I'd gotten some Puerto Rican sets from the late 80's, a couple odd ball Australian sets and all the Arizona Fall League prospect sets. I'd even picked up the Lime Rock Dominican Winter League set from the early 1990's. For some reason, I was never able to get any Venezuelan cards. I even had card sets from the short lived successors to the HWL - the Maryland Fall League and the California Fall League. So each year I was looking for Hawaiian Winter League cards. The only year that there were cards for sale was the 1996 season. (Well, in the league's first incarnation - there have been cards for the 2006-08 seasons.)

Fast forward to 2001. Ichiro has signed with the Mariners and is taking the major leagues by storm. Imagine my surprise that someone has started selling 1993 Hilo Stars Ichiro Suzuki cards on eBay. Where did these come from and why have I never seen them before? I asked a friend of mine who's a major minor league card dealer about them - he's never seen them before either.

From what it looks like, there is a 1993 Hilo Stars team set that contains two cards of Ichiro Suzuki. They are card #1 and card #5 (his uniform number with Hilo) in the set. There are also rare "gold signature" inserts in the team sets for both cards. The website Collecting Ichiro lists these cards on one of their pages and has scans of them (as well as the 2001 "reprints" that also appeared that year). (Collecting Ichiro actually has a pretty impressive collection of Ichiro's Japanese cards and is worth checking out.)

Now, I'm not one to cast any aspersions around. But I wonder about a couple things:
  • Nobody saw these cards before 2001. I was looking. So were others. We never saw them.
  • Beyond the two Ichiro cards, the only other 1993 HWL card I've ever seen was of Jason Giambi who had been with the Kauai Emeralds. I don't remember exactly when in 2001 I saw this card (on eBay, posted by the same guy selling the Ichiro cards) but it was definitely after Giambi had been named MVP (since that was in 2000) and it may have conveniently been after Giambi had signed with the Yankees. So if there's a Hilo Stars team set containing two Ichiro cards, where's the rest of it? Or the rest of the Emeralds set?
  • It's difficult to gauge how much of a prospect Ichiro was considered in the fall of 1993. On the one hand, he'd had outstanding numbers in high school and he'd led his minor league (the Western League I think) in batting in his first year as a professional (1992). On the other hand, he was a fourth (and final) round draft pick in the fall of 1991, he'd hit .253 and .188 in the majors in 1992 and 1993 and his manager through the 1993 season, Shozo Doi, didn't believe that he would ever hit with the batting style he used. But we're to believe that the Hilo set not only contains TWO cards of him, there were also gold signature inserts also? OK, he was the HWL MVP that year, but really? Two cards of a guy who might be a huge star in Japan but no one had any reason to expect was going to someday come to the United States (remember that this is a year before Hideo Nomo signed with the Dodgers)?
I bring this up now because I noticed someone selling the cards on eBay again today. (They might always be selling them, I just happened to see it today.) I'm not saying they're not legitimate. I'm not saying that they're not worth the money. And I'm certainly not saying that I really believe that these cards were printed in 2001 in an unfortunately successful attempt to cash in on the Ichiro craze. I'm just saying "caveat emptor".

18 comments:

Jason said...

You didn't happen to snag a Bernie Brito Diamond Star card when you were accumulating those 1993 Lime Rock cards, did you? I've busted 5 boxes and assembled 3+ complete base sets, but I haven't been able to pick up that ONE card to help finish up my Bernardo Brito collection.

NPB Card Guy said...

Sorry, Jason, but I don't have it.

packaddict said...

Bernardo Brito. Wow, I remember seeing him hit a few of his 299 minor league homers for the Portland Beavers way back when.

Joe S. said...

WOW, the Hawaiian Winter League!!! I remember that! My dad was stationed in Hawaii (Navy) when this league debuted and I remember going to a game against the Hilo Stars. I have no idea who was playing, but I remember loving it because I got a TON of autographs. I'll have to dig up the balls I got signed, see if anyone big is on them...

NPB Card Guy said...

The big names with Hilo that year would be Ichiro, So Taguchi and Bill Mueller for starters.

Unknown said...

As for the rest of the set of the 1993 Hawaiian Hilo Stars, I've also never come across any of the cards besides Ichiro. I have seen a handful of 'authenticated' Ichiro cards, in that they were graded and slabbed by the Beckett Grading System. They indeed listed the cards as 1993, and not a reprint from 2001. Wondering what they may be worth. Any clues?

NPB Card Guy said...

No idea what they would be worth.

Anonymous said...

I have to say as a person who is in possession of the set of all 4 1993 Ichiro cards from the 1993 HWL, your points do make me stop and wonder. I also have never seen any other cards besides Giambi. I purchased my cards from the guy who had them made. My understanding was the cards were never sold as a set, that they were given out at the games but since attendance was low, so was the amount that was given out. I was also told, the cards themselves were made in a large amount but during a burglary most were stolen and destroyed when the suspect attempted to destroy evidence, leaving around 300 each of the #1 and #5, and 200 each of the gold facsimile autographed versions. All of this info came directly from Larry Rutkowski, the person who had them made. His story is plausible as are your points. I'm curious for inquiry on the matter.

Anonymous said...

I should also add to my previous post that the information I was given regarding how the 1993 cards came to be, was given to me back in 2000 or 2001 when I purchased my first 1993 Ichiro card so the information is now new.

NPB Card Guy said...

Thanks for the additional information. If you indeed bought the card in 2000 then that's very interesting. But I suspect you didn't get it until 2001.

I have to say that the story about them being given out at the games is a new to me. But if there was no team set, why are the cards numbered #1 and #5? (#5 was his uniform number so that one might make sense) I've heard the "burglary" story before but I've also heard stories about a flood and/or fire that destroyed the rest of the team sets.

And again I ask the question - why two cards (with two gold signature parallels) of Ichiro? Yes, he was the HWL MVP, but the history of minor league baseball is filled with League MVPs who never went anywhere. This is a guy that no one in Japan produced a card of his first year in pro ball (1992), that Calbee, one of the major card manufacturers in Japan, didn't do a card of in their regular issue until 1995 (his first Calbee cards were in the very rare Hokkaido issue in late 1994) and who Tomy didn't bother to include in their 1994 set. And this is a year or so BEFORE Hideo Nomo came to the US in 1995, so no one was seriously thinking about anyone from Japan coming to the US. But there's four cards made of him?

If there was only one card as opposed to four, I might be less skeptical. If I'd ever seen any other cards from the set, I might be less skeptical. If there had ever been a rumor that these cards existed prior to 2001, I might be less skeptical. How come none of these cards surfaced when Ichiro went to spring training with the Mariners in 1999? If I'd had them, that would have been the perfect time to sell some of them. But, nope, nobody had any idea they existed until 2001 when, conveniently, Ichiro was playing in the US.

Anonymous said...

You are correct in that I didn't purchase mine until 2001, after he had already come to the U.S. I agree with every one of your points. 4 different cards is an awful lot of a single player and the case you make has made me skeptical also.

NPB Card Guy said...

Mr. Rutkowski has sold these cards as recently as last summer on eBay for over $100 each so it's not like my skepticism about these cards is cutting into his business much.

And apparently he's also sold a "misprint" Ichiro Hilo Stars card - don't know the details because the auction's too old.

Anonymous said...

I remember that misprint card auction. It was one of the gold facsimile versions where the kanji was not printed in the correct spot and left a white outline of the autograph with the gold autograph offset. Also, to clarify, I stated that I saw Giambi's card. I'm not sure that the card I saw was from the 1993 HWLL so don't put any weight into that statement.

Jason Presley said...

I don't know why it didn't occur to me before, but the 1993 HWL cards are very reminiscent of the "1982" Anchorage Glacier Pilots card of Mark McGwire that was procuced by the team in 1987. I remember everyone going nuts over those when they suddenly hit the market in mass numbers (relatively speaking, every dealer seemed to have a couple).

NPB Card Guy said...

I was not aware of that McGwire card until you mentioned it but after doing some quick google searches, yeah, it sounds very similar.

I'd say the biggest difference is that the producers of the McGwire card admitted fairly quickly that the card was not really produced in 1982 while 13 years later Mr. Rutkowski apparently still claims that the Ichiro cards are from 1993.

Jason Presley said...

Yes, you'd think that if he was telling the truth, he would have SOME evidence of the rest of the cards that should have existed aside from the Ichiro and Giambi. Flood, fire and theft are always very convenient covers for stories like that.

NPB Card Guy said...

There's so much with the "story" of these cards that just doesn't add up but they continue to sell well on Ebay. People want to believe.

Jack said...

All quite interesting. I happened on the cards on ebay today, (2) of them, each selling at $100 for a PSA 10. Love the card and the price, but decided I'd better do some research, which lead me to this page.

IMHO, the evidence is overwhelming that the cards are not from 1993, and are fakes. Besides, if they are as rare as they are made out to be, how come a PSA 10 is only $100?

Great site!

Jack Dworetzky